There are times when global politics are secondary. During a dinner with DER SPIEGEL last Thursday evening in an expensive restaurant on Place Jourdan in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks in meticulous detail about Cyprus, Kosovo, Iraq. Now and again he jokes about the foibles and abilities of other foreign ministers.
After the hors d'oeuvre he touches on the German army's mission in Afghanistan. But it isn't until the main course is served that Steinmeier asks: "Do you want to talk about it now?" After a rundown of the world's crises he knows it's time for him to turn to his own personal trouble spot: The case of Murat Kurnaz, who spent four and a half years in detention at Guantanamo Bay where he was mistreated.
Steinmeier is earnest and seems a bit irritated but is by no means defensive. He insists that he feels deeply troubled by Kurnaz's story. But then he adds that, as head of the German Chancellery, it was his job to look out for German security -- and, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Kurnaz was considered a security risk.
What if Kurnaz, after returning from Guantanamo, had been involved in an attack, he asks? "You have to imagine what would have happened," he says, answering his own question, "if there had been an attack and it later turned out that we could have prevented it." Steinmeier is a calm person but at this point he talks himself into a rage. "I wouldn't decide any differently today," he says.
It's a strong sentence by someone who is intent on sticking to his position. Rather than make proclamations of repentance, Steinmeier wants to convince critics that his actions were necessary.
It's a risky approach for Steinmeier. New details from a darker period are popping up almost daily as politicians, government officials and journalists sift through mountains of documents to determine whether the German government could -- or should -- have prevented Kurnaz, an innocent man, from spending almost five years in Guantanamo. It cannot be ruled out that at some point a document will surface that will force Steinmeier to resign. Indeed, it is already clear that politicians from both parties in Germany's coalition government, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Steinmeier's own Social Democratic Party (SPD), are cautiously beginning to distance themselves from him.
Two worlds for Steinmeier
The case is splitting Steinmeier's world in two. As foreign minister of the country currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union, he and his counterparts in the world of diplomacy tackle the global issues of our time. But he is intermittently forced to descend into the cellar of his own past. Until 2005, Steinmeier was head of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Chancellery and, in this capacity, in charge of Germany's intelligence services. Every aspect of the Kurnaz case had to have passed across his desk. On Friday a criminal complaint -- for aiding and abetting unlawful detention -- was filed against the foreign minister with the Berlin public prosecutor's office.
An innocent man suffers in one of the most notorious prisons in the Western world, and a few German officials decide not to secure his release, even though they presumably have the power to do so. This is the story being told by documents that are gradually coming to light.
Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen, was born in Bremen and was living there when the Sept. 11 attacks by Islamic terrorists shook the world. A little more than three weeks later, on Oct. 3, Kurnaz flew to Pakistan, where he visited various mosques and cities before he was arrested in December 2001. He was handed over to the Americans, who locked him up at their base in Kandahar, Afghanistan and, in early 2002, flew him to Guantanamo.
The Kurnaz file soon made it to the Chancellery, Steinmeier's realm at the time. He was chosen for the job for his ability to maintain order. His predecessor, Bodo Hombach, was seen as a chaotic dreamer with grand but utopian visions. Steinmeier, on the other hand, is a bureaucrat through and through, a man known for his quiet and efficient approach to processing files, memos and legal documents -- the type of person whose attention to detail could easily lead to a loss of perspective when it comes to the human dimension.
The so-called presidential meeting takes place every Tuesday at noon on the eighth floor of the Chancellery. Eight people attend this weekly meeting: the top civil servants from the foreign office, the ministries of the interior and justice, the heads of the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies (Verfassungsschutz and Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND), the president of the Federal Criminal Investigation Agency (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA), and the coordinator of intelligence at the Chancellery. The head of the Chancellery is also usually present at the meeting.
To encourage open discussions, minutes of the sessions are not kept. Attendees are permitted to take notes, but these are treated as being among the government's most closely guarded treasures. Indeed, they are considered so top secret that that they have yet to be turned over to the committee investigating the Kurnaz case. During one of these meetings in the spring of 2002, shortly after Kurnaz's arrest, the BKA presented its findings. The results seem to make a strong case against Kurnaz.
According to the BKA report, a fellow student told officials that Kurnaz referred to the Sept. 11 attacks as "Allah's will." Another student reported that Kurnaz had stored the word "Taliban" in his mobile phone. An agent from Germany's domestic intelligence service claimed that an imam with whom Kurnaz had discussed his trip had praised the "heroic resistance of the Taliban" during a Friday sermon. Finally, a young man who had admitted to being a Taliban sympathizer purchased Kurnaz's ticket to Pakistan.
The BKA officers assembled a picture of a suspicious-looking Islamist. The participants of the meeting agreed on that. The Sept. 11 attacks had happened only six months earlier, and the West feared new attacks.
In the summer of 2002, officials in Washington decided to invite a German delegation to Guantanamo -- two men from the BND and a member of the domestic intelligence service -- to interrogate Kurnaz. Steve H., a CIA agent, would accompany them. H., in his late 30s, fit and blonde, spoke passable German. He worked at the US embassy in Berlin and was in a relationship with a German woman. H. and the three Germans spent two days, Sept. 23 and 24, interrogating Kurnaz. In the end, they concluded that there were "no indications of an internalized Islamist ideology."
To conclude the visit, the deputy director of the detention camp, a general, invited his German guests to dinner. The discussion revolved around the interrogations, and according to inquiries SPIEGEL has made in Germany and in the United States, the general sent an encoded report with the results to the Pentagon that same evening. No prisoners are released from Guantanamo without approval from the US Department of Defense in Washington.
The CIA said it was in favor of releasing Kurnaz, and the senior Pentagon officials who had been given a summary of the interrogation report apparently had no serious objections. Even the office of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was apparently notified of the case.
On Sept. 25, 2002, the three German agents flew on a US military aircraft from Guantanamo to Washington. They were taken to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where they and CIA officials discussed the idea of releasing Kurnaz and using him as a source.
In his report on the trip, Jan K. of the German domestic intelligence agency later noted that Kurnaz could "expect to be a member of the first group of prisoners to be released." In his recommendation to the German government, K. wrote: "In light of Kurnaz's possibly imminent release, we should determine whether the return of this Turkish citizen is even in Germany's interest and, given the expected media interest, whether Germany wants to document that everything possible was done to prevent his return."
The agent's report highlighted the key issue for the German government: Should Kurnaz be allowed to return to Germany? And what were officials doing to make this possible -- or prevent it from happening?
The mood in Germany had not changed since the spring, with the dark cloud of terrorism still hanging ominously over the country. The government of SPD and Greens had only recently tightened legislation on foreign nationals, and Interior Minister Otto Schily (SPD) had ordered the compiling of a list of 100 individuals considered dangerous, although most of them could not be deported because they would likely face torture or death in their native countries. Although Kurnaz would have been a candidate for Schily's list, Turkey was a country to which German authorities could deport people. Given that the German government was doing its best to expel suspicious foreigners, why would it be interested in actually bringing them into the country?
Persona non grata
The reports from Guantanamo were initially presented to senior officials at BND, the German foreign intelligence agency. On Oct. 4, 2002 the BND director, August Hanning, wrote the words "mission accomplished" on the report. Though opposed to the idea of using Kurnaz as an informant, Hanning instructed his agents to "remain in contact" with the CIA.
When the next presidential meeting took place at the Chancellery a few days later, on Oct. 8, 2002, the idea of using Kurnaz as an informant was discussed and rejected. The heads of the foreign and domestic intelligence agencies argued that someone with few contacts in the radical community would be of little use as a source. Besides, the use of a former prisoner as a spy could prove to be politically sensitive if the plan ever became public. No one at the meeting was in favor of seizing the opportunity and getting Kurnaz out of Guantanamo.
Another presidential session took place on Oct. 29, 2002. Steinmeier, who had already discussed the Kurnaz matter with Hanning and Ernst Uhrlau, the then intelligence services coordinator in the Chancellery, chaired the meeting. Hanning proposed deporting Kurnaz to Turkey in the event of his release and denying him a visa to return to Germany. Uhrlau agreed, as did Claus Henning Schapper, the secretary of state in the interior ministry. There is no record of Steinmeier having objected to these views.
That decision sealed Kurnaz's fate for the foreseeable future. He would remain in Guantanamo. Later, following his release, Kurnaz would describe the conditions under which he lived and the abuse he suffered at Guantanamo: extreme heat and cold, pepper spray attacks, isolation, being beaten and kicked.
Legal trick to keep Kurnaz out
Back in Germany, the interior ministry was tasked with implementing the solution discussed in the presidential session. In a telephone conference with the domestic intelligence agency, the ministry officials presented a legal trick: Because Kurnaz had been out of the country for more than six months, his residency permit had expired. To prevent him from returning home to Germany through Turkey, the domestic intelligence agency would ask the CIA to hand over Kurnaz's Turkish passport. This would enable the Germans to render the residency permit in the passport "physically invalid." Steinmeier was allegedly told about this by Schapper, the secretary of state in the interior ministry. According to a document dated Oct. 30, 2002, the Chancellery and the interior ministry were in agreement that Kurnaz's return to Germany "is not desired."
A few days later the domestic intelligence agency notified the CIA in writing of the "express wish" that Kurnaz "not return to Germany." The request continued: "For this reason, we ask that in such a case you refrain from sending him to Germany."
The request triggered consternation at the CIA. Agent James G. was ordered to look into what could have prompted the Germans to change their minds. G., the CIA's Munich resident, likes the Germans but is also often frustrated by them because he doesn't think they take enough risks. On Nov. 4, 2002, G. drove to BND headquarters in Pullach.
James G. raised his voice as he complained about the Kurnaz case and BND officials were so worried about the dispute that they wrote the following report to Hanning: "Mr. G. expressed his suspicion that the federal government, in reaching its decision, intends to demonstrate its willingness to take tough action when it comes to international terrorists. But in the Kurnaz case, US interests would have been served by a very different decision."
Does this mean that the Americans offered to extradite Kurnaz to Germany?
The truth is probably most accurately reflected in the fact that the US government never issued an official offer, one that would have been both legally and diplomatically binding, to extradite Kurnaz. But no one knows better than Steinmeier that secret diplomacy works differently. Feelers are put out and reactions tested. The door had already been opened halfway for Kurnaz in 2002, and there was opportunity to open it wide. But Steinmeier, Uhrlau and Hanning decided to slam it shut again.
The door was shut on Murat Kurnaz, and as a result he spent three more agonizing years at Guantanamo.
In October 2005 the German Foreign Office launched another attempt to clarify the Kurnaz case. Early that month Klaus-Peter Gottwald, a German diplomat, met with Damon Wilson, a high-ranking official at the US National Security Council. He also met with officials at the US Department of Justice. In the report he wired to the Foreign Office, a copy of which was sent to the Chancellery, Gottwald wrote that he had made it clear that Germany had a "continuing interest in the Murat Kurnaz case in light of humanitarian, international law and human rights concerns."
The case came up again in a presidential session on Oct. 11, 2005. The participants agreed on two issues: that the signals coming from America were still unclear and that the Germans remained opposed to Kurnaz returning to Germany.
Lack of coordination
When the report on Gottwald's mission reached Berlin from Washington on Oct. 14, 2005, three days after the session, one of Steinmeier's officials wrote: "If the embassy expresses an interest in MK, the Americans must be gaining the impression that we want him back. In my view, something isn't being coordinated properly."
This lack of coordination was more than offset by efforts to deflect the issue. Because the next presidential session, on Oct. 18, 2005, was cancelled, Steinmeier's staff met with officials from the interior ministry and Joschka Fisher's foreign ministry.
According to the minutes of the meeting, there was "agreement not to allow K.'s return." However, the report continued, "there doesn't appear to be enough information to block his return on legal grounds." For this reason, the interior ministry and the domestic intelligence agency hoped to "obtain additional information against K. from the Americans that will solidify suspicions of (his) support for international terrorism."
In a meeting on Oct. 27, 2005, Georg Boomgarden and Lutz Diwell, the respective state secretaries from the German foreign ministry and interior ministry, agreed that the allegations against Kurnaz had to be sufficiently serious to hold up in court. This led to a meeting at the interior ministry in November 2005, also attended by officials from the domestic intelligence agency. The security services were asked to review information that would justify blocking a return to Germany.
Only after the administrative court in Bremen ruled in November 2005 that Kurnaz's residency permit could not be revoked, and after SPIEGEL reported on Jan. 9, 2006 about the government's efforts to deny him entry, did the officials change their approach. By that time a new government was in office, there had been some personnel changes and Steinmeier had become foreign minister. On Jan. 17, senior officials decided "that possible entry is now acceptable." Shortly after the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, criticized the camp at Guantanamo in an interview with SPIEGEL, the US government contacted the Chancellery. Germany, according to the Americans, could contribute to making the camp redundant. All it had to do was to take back Mr. Kurnaz. He was released a few months later.
This is the situation, the current status of an affair as it has emerged from the records and from conversations with those involved. It remains an incomplete picture. There are many documents the German government has not released, and the group of German officials who traveled to Guantanamo in 2002 are not scheduled to testify before parliament's investigative committee until Thursday of this week.
Nevertheless, the picture is already sufficiently clear to allow certain conclusions to be reached. One of those is that the Chancellery apparently spent more than three years, from the fall of 2002 to the end of 2005, obstructing Kurnaz's possible return to Germany.
German officials could have seriously negotiated with the US administration in late 2002, when there were growing signs that an imminent release was possible. By the time the Pentagon and CIA headquarters became involved, it was no longer a case for mid-level intelligence officials, but one that should have belonged on the political stage in Washington. Thomas Oppermann, the SPD chairman on the investigative committee, says the interior ministry's actions to prevent Kurnaz from re-entering Germany, even going so far as destroying his passport, was "objective cynicism."
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York, Germany's coalition government "tossed constitutional principles -- in isolated cases -- overboard, thereby accepting a blatant violation of the constitution as a necessary evil," says Max Stadler, a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) who also sits on the investigative committee. "The government at the time was no longer weighing the justifiable security interests of the state against the freedom of the individual." Steinmeier, he adds, also "had no constitutional compass, focusing instead on Schily's motto at the time: 'In dubio pro securitate'" -- when in doubt, choose security.
Even more damaging is the notion that in the fall of 2005 the Chancellery and the interior ministry made a concerted effort to find incriminating facts that could have put a stop to Kurnaz's return to Germany. By that time the commotion following Sept. 11, 2001 had given way to a concentrated sense of calm, and it was clear that Kurnaz was at worst small fry in the Islamist scene. A former cabinet member calls this effort "disgusting."
The upshot is that the red-green coalition government, which had come into office supporting liberal policies regarding foreigners, saw Kurnaz as a security problem until the end. To this day, German domestic intelligence classifies Kurnaz's friend Selçuk B., who had originally planned to travel to Pakistan with him, as an "Islamist person of influence" with multi-regional contacts. And despite his having been allowed to return to Germany, Kurnaz was viewed with such mistrust that he was kept under 24-hour surveillance for several months following his return.
Relief at size of beard
Today he lives in Bremen again and sports an enormous beard, a look that some at the foreign ministry certainly welcome. After all, doesn't he look like someone who could be capable of almost anything?
But this is unfair, and Steinmeier deliberately distances himself from this attitude. At the moment he has to live with the knowledge that new information could come to light at any time, be it incriminating or otherwise. And yet it doesn't seem to make him nervous, this constant shifting between two worlds, the shady world of intelligence and the dignified world of diplomacy, between his current duties in Brussels and elsewhere and the review of files from his past.
Steinmeier rejects the accusations at various levels, both personal and political. He says that by no means did he operate as an apolitical apparatchik. He rankles at being characterized as nothing but an efficient bureaucrat, adding that the decision not to allow Kurnaz to return to Germany was by no means merely a technical process. "Those decisions were highly political," he insists. "A number of the Sept. 11 attackers came from Germany." The government, according to Steinmeier, bore the responsibility for ensuring that such an attack could not be repeated.
He explains that this was why he rejected a German-American "agent game," as he calls the CIA's offer to cooperate with the BND. A suspected terrorist working as an informant for German intelligence? Even the head of the BND "categorically rejected" the idea, says Steinmeier -- thereby hiding behind his former colleague's expertise. How could he, as a politician, have opposed the urgent advice of experts?
According to Steinmeier's understanding of the "agent game," there was no official American offer, which meant that there could be no German rejection. The boundaries were not blurred between the two governments, but between hierarchy levels. Agents had developed a plan that the federal government in Berlin rejected on the grounds that it was outrageous. Apparently the purpose of the exercise was not to free a prisoner, but to recruit an informant who could provide information from within the terrorist community in Germany.
Steinmeier looking lonely
Steinmeier also disputes the claim that Kurnaz's innocence was proven early on. According to a list of arguments drafted by the foreign office, there were "serious security concerns" about Kurnaz. Until December 2005, the document states, "German domestic intelligence officials assumed that Murat Kurnaz had been indoctrinated by Islamist groups, up to the point of participation in the necessary jihad in Afghanistan."
Steinmeier is adamant that the German government repeatedly pressured Washington to release Kurnaz. But it continued to insist that he not return to Germany -- even in 2005.
According to the foreign ministry, the Americans didn't regard Kurnaz as innocent either. This was apparently one of the reasons -- and this was recently confirmed by Turkish officials -- that he wasn't sent to Turkey.
Steinmeier challenges the notion that Turkey had done nothing to help its citizen because of his strong ties to Germany. The Americans also refused to extradite him to Ankara. According to the foreign ministry, this refusal was based "on the especially serious charges" against Kurnaz.
Officials hope to bridge the coming weeks with these arguments. Much will depend on who supports Steinmeier, who is currently experiencing how lonely life can be in politics.
The Christian Democrats have distanced themselves from their coalition partner. Siegfried Kauder, the Christian Democratic chairman of the BND investigative committee, has already announced what political standard he intends to measure Steinmeier by. "When you realize that an innocent person is being held in Guantanamo, you cannot simply wait for an extradition offer," says Kauder. "You have to be proactive."
Bureaucrat of power?
The Chancellery has been less harsh. In a meeting with members of parliament Thomas de Maizière, the current head of the Chancellery, asked for their understanding for Steinmeier's plight. Germany's situation in 2002, said Maizière, must be taken into account. For Chancellor Merkel, Steinmeier's problems come at an opportune time. She disagrees with the foreign minister on several issues, including Germany's relationship with Russia. The fact that Steinmeier is under pressure and is therefore unable to act as freely as he would like strengthens Merkel's position. On the other hand, Steinmeier poses no threat to Merkel because he currently has no further political ambitions. "Merkel wants Steinmeier on his knees, but not lying on the ground," says a leading member of the CDU and Christian Social Union parliamentary group.
The Social Democrats regard their foreign minister with an odd mixture of confidence and doubt. According to the draft for the party's new basic manifesto, "the indivisibility and universal application of all human rights" is "non-negotiable" for the Social Democrats. Of course, the accusations against Steinmeier fly in the face of such principles. One of his critics is Inge Wettig-Danielmeier, the SPD's treasurer, who enquired last Monday at SPD headquarters: "Even if everything is in order -- will there be any more?"
It's now evident that Steinmeier, who had been touted by some members of his party as a possible candidate for chancellor, has no network within the party. And because he is a not a member of parliament, the SPD's parliamentary group is unlikely to support him to the end.
Steinmeier certainly cannot expert a full acquittal. The serious accusations and condemnation will persist, no matter what the outcome of the investigation. Most of all, the label that upsets him the most will likely continue to stick: that he is a bureaucrat of power.
Reporting by Ralf Beste, Petra Bornhöft, Horand Knaup, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Georg Mascolo, Ralf Neukirch, Holger Stark
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan